American Times Lynchburg: Whiskey and dry, it's the Tennessee way

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The Independent Online
YOU DON'T need to go anywhere near New York's Times Square to find the United States a land of hustlers. From the garish roadside hoardings to the blaring television commercials, through radio newsreaders who intersperse their bulletins with details of today's supermarket "specials", everyone seems to be yelling a sales pitch.

But there are exceptions. Try visiting the home of one of America's best-known brandnames - Jack Daniel's. The distillery of the oldest registered whiskey producer in the country occupies a spacious estate in Lynchburg, Tennessee. But there is no way you will know until you are practically there.

The only sign is the two-mile marker, a discreet green plaque, on one of the minor approach roads. And if you were secretly angling for a drop of the hard stuff, think again. Commercialism in America has its limits, and some of the most rigid govern the sale of spirits.

Jack Daniel's is in one of Tennessee's "dry" counties. There are no liquor stores. A tentative inquiry about a glass of wine or beer with a meal will be met with cool disdain. The dryness of dry counties is not a talking point; it is a question that has been settled, and the answer is "no".

On an efficient half-hour tour of Jack Daniel's you will be shown some of the hundreds of thousands of barrels ageing in the warehouse. You will see the wood-burning shelters where they make the mellowing charcoal, the iron-free spring water that flows serenely through caves at the foot of the distillery, and the statue of the diminutive founder, the original Jack Daniel, in size 9 (American) shoes, because with the size 4 he really took, the statue fell over.

But the strongest drink you will be offered is lemonade. Under a special dispensation, wrung from county authorities five years ago, the plant gained the right to sell single bottles of an extra-special be-medalled edition at a counter crammed in the corner of the visitors' hall, unadvertised. You may register the bottle with the distillery: whatever you do with it afterwards, at point of sale, it's a souvenir, not a drink.

The paradox of a whiskey distillery where you may not buy or drink the product is not unique to Jack Daniel's. Some of the most respected bourbon distilleries to the north, in Kentucky, are also in dry counties. At one, you may savour a nip, buy one bottle (no more), and dip the cork in red wax to seal it. The county around is dry. At another, you cannot buy even one bottle.

Some dry counties are a relic of Prohibition - the years from 1917 to 1933 - when Al Capone held Chicago in thrall, Joseph Kennedy senior made his money, and illegal stills flourished. What befell the once-legitimate liquor businesses, such as Jack Daniel's - and their proprietors and employees - during Prohibition is treated as one of those dark chapters of America's history passed over in silence.

Distillery guides glide over Prohibition, noting only that the business closed in such and such a year, and reopened however many years later. And after shrinking over the decades, the number of dry counties is growing again, as wealthier, fundamentalist, church-going populations run liquor stores out of town.

But America's commercial instinct is not easily curbed. Jack Daniel's now markets all manner of non-alcoholic spin-offs under its label, including bottles (empty). If you prefer your bottles full, you must follow the natives across the county line: fortunately, you no longer risk jail for bootlegging.